Bernie Anderson
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Current musings, whatever they may be. 

How To Lead Through Failure (Things Leaders Should Never Say)

Failure is not an option.
  • Mythical words made famous by the US Space program;
  • Popularized through subsequent books and movies.
  • Trivialized and misused by insecure leaders who are unsure how to best lead their people.

A leader who spouts those five words to the team is not leading. In fact, I'd argue this leader is setting the team up for failure - with horrible self-fulfilling irony.

Because no one will execute a complex strategy, or create beautiful design, or write a tight bit of copy, or do much anything else of value without iteration. Iteration means failure. Failure is the way of finding the right path through figuring out what won't work.

It's a necessary piece of all modern creative work and most other jobs.

There are exceptions.

  • Nuclear submarines
  • Bridge construction
  • Tree surgery
  • Airline pilot

But in the grand scheme of things, the number of occupational exceptions are few. (And the training for these professions does indeed allow for failure).

A leader who cheerleads the team by chanting "No room for failure" is leading by bravado and not wisdom. At this point in my life, if someone leads with this, I will be walking.

Failure is necessary.

Failure is how we learn what doesn't work.

When children learn to walk they fall. It's like falling off a bike or missing at a free throw or writing a scene that doesn't work - we make adjustments. We get better the next time. We execute with imperfection. We correct. Execute. Correct. Failure is how our brains make corrections. It's a necessary path to success.

Create a safe place to fail

Leaders - good leaders - give people a safe place to fail. Leaders cushion the inevitable fall and provide quick, helpful, and encouraging feedback. Grace and wisdom. This is an important and critical leadership skill. When a team knows they're allowed to experiment, allowed to fail and that their leaders will provide correction and feedback in helpful ways, the possibilities are enormous.

Fail early, adjust quickly

It's important the leader provides opportunity to fail early. It's much better if there's stumbling at the beginning of a project than to go off the rails at the deadline. Plan for early failure. Make quick adjustments.

Failure must not only be an option - failure should be required. If we're not failing we're not innovating.

And when we fail to innovate, we're failing, indeed.

So fail well.